In my first year at a new job, I ate lunch every single day with three women who were around my age. At first, I enjoyed the camaraderie of the ritual. But then I started to notice the glaring red flags of a mean girl.
One woman took control of the conversations. She nagged. She asked uncomfortable personal questions. She made group decisions. She used sarcasm to put others down, including me. She seemed jealous and annoyed. She was condescending. At times, she was just plain mean.
I didn’t confront her. Instead, I started to slowly skip the daily lunches. I went for mid-day walks and took coffee breaks alone. I still accepted invitations to happy hour and the out-of-office lunch, but I kept one foot in the group and one foot out.
I stayed planted like that for another four years…and here’s what I learned:
Mean girls at work can be hard to spot
Often, mean girls are sociable and funny. They enjoy being the center of attention and they're often liked by many, even their bosses. They seem confident, even cocky. But appearances are just that.
According to Katherine Crowley, psychotherapist and co-author of Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal, “when threatened by competition in the workplace, some women become passively aggressive and discredit, defame, and isolate those that they feel in competition with.”
When they lash out, they do so subtly, and often, very pointedly, so nobody but the person being picked on seems to notice. What do you do when there is a mean girl culture at work?
In my case, I let it go. I disengaged. I laughed it off. It wasn’t fair or fun, being nice to the one person who wasn’t nice to me. It was frustrating, and many times, exhausting, but it minimized the situation.
Read more: Surviving a Devil-Wears-Prada Boss
Avoiding is better than confronting
It didn’t occur to me that associating with the mean girl made me seem like one. We were the same age. We attended the same events. We talked at the coffee station. We went out for drinks. To coworkers, we seemed like friends—when all I was trying to do was remain cordial.
“We’re nothing alike,” I wanted to say, every time the mean girl and I were seen together, but it wasn’t my job to expose her. I kept my distance. I focused on my work. I made a point to be friendly and kind to everyone, including her.
It’s not your job to point out who the mean girl in the workplace. If you can, simply avoid her. After a while, mean girls will get recognized for being mean, and your best bet is to remain consistent—consistent in your work and your kindness. The longer we worked for the company, the more our individual actions were seen. And actions will always speak louder than words.
Your job is to maintain your professionalism at work, treat your coworkers with respect, and to avoid participating in the mean girl's clique.
Speak up only if the situation requires it
I could have addressed the issue with my manager—whom I had a strong relationship with—but I never did. Why? I wanted to defuse the situation, not aggravate it.
And at the end of the day, I knew this mean girl was harmless.
There are, however, instances when you should address the issue with HR or a manager. These include but are not limited to the mean girl:
Taking credit for your work
Disrupting your ability to do actually do your work and/or focus on your tasks
Presenting you in a way that makes others doubt your work or behavior.
What can you do? Track any evidence you have: emails, texts, voicemails.
“I document all of my work and will include a higher up on emails to hold others accountable,” says Wendy, a journalist.
Find support elsewhere in the office
If the situation needs to be addressed, it’s best to set a meeting with a higher-up who knows you and present the evidence in a professional manner. Explain what happened, how the situation is affecting you, and what sort of resolution you’re seeking.
Whatever happens, don’t let the mean girl get you down (or hinder your career advancement).
As Stephanie, a social marketing specialist, says, “What’s most important is knowing your worth and establishing relationships with the right people in the office who will assist you in the trajectory of your career.”
Read more: A Guide to Gossiping Well
Fighting mean girl culture in the workplace
A mean girl culture at work is best fought with kindness, respect, and inclusion.
If you see someone being left out of lunch plans, invite them along. If you see a mean girl taking credit for work someone else did, you might say, That project did go really well. Sarah's project management really made that success possible. If you're dealing with a jealous coworker, recognize their skills, but never apologize for your own.
If you go high when they go low, the mean girl will find she doesn't have much traction at all.
Sarah Sheppard is a professional writer and editor. She worked as a senior manager at an independent publisher in Boston, earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University, and currently resides in the Midwest. She is working on her first novel. You can find her at @writershep on Twitter and @sarahsheppardwriter on Instagram.